Scholars consider Frederic Remington to be one of the most copied American artists. While compiling a catalogue raisonné of Remington’s paintings, the review committee examined nearly 500 two-dimensional works. Of those submissions, only 22% were deemed original. The rest were copies, fakes, and forgeries.
What’s the difference between a fake, forgery, or copy? A fake is a painting that does not relate to any known Remington work but is given a fraudulent Remington signature and is of a subject that might have interested him. A forgery occurs when someone takes an artist’s work, paints out his or her signature, and signs the forged signature of another artist. A copy is a reproduction of a known Remington painting but painted by someone else, with a false Remington signature.
The issue of fakes and forgeries is something that is dealt with frequently in the art world. The current system for authenticating works relies on a three-tier approach of connoisseurship (an expert verifying that the work reflects the artist’s style and technique), provenance (the history of an artwork’s ownership) and scientific analysis done by conservators like Claire Barry, Director of Conservation at the Kimbell Art Museum.
In preparation for the Sid Richardson Museum’s focus exhibit, Frederic Remington: Altered States, Ms. Barry examined The Way Post, a watercolor & gouache painting currently attributed to Remington. However, scholars as well as the museum staff, question the painting’s authorship. The work is dated circa 1881, just at the beginning period of the artist’s career at a time when Remington made his first trip West to Montana. Conservators like Barry acknowledge that it is difficult to authenticate very early works or very late works of artists.
One of the many tools conservators employ in their lab is infrared reflectography, which allows one to examine any underdrawings. Unfortunately, Ms. Barry did not discover much underdrawings in The Way Post. Instead, one can get a better sense of the underdrawings with the naked eye, as the graphite is visible through the watercolor.
As mentioned in a previous blog post, the similarities between The Way Post and the work of one of Remington’s contemporaries, William de la Montagne Cary, is striking. Like Remington, Cary was also a Western illustrator around the same time period (1840-1922). Compare The Way Post with Cary’s The Strong Cup from the Gilcrease Museum’s collection, which is similar in subject, media and size.
Other clues about the painting’s authorship are best found within the composition and painting technique itself. Note the presence of a child in the background, the inclusion of which is unusual for a Remington painting. Yet the use of a raking shadow throughout the painting, particularly under the fence, is a signature of Remington’s work. Likewise, one will note the difference in texture between the foreground washes and the opaquely painted sky – another signature of Remington’s style.
The painting is monogramed with Remington’s initials, F.R. While Remington did use his initials on other early works, the style of the letters in this painting is a little different. Unfortunately, Remington was not consistent with his signatures, using different colors, different styles, and even different angles. See if you can spot which signature below appears on a fake Remington painting:
If you guessed “d.”, you’re correct!
While recent studies have provided a closer look at The Way Post, attribution still remains unclear. What are the next steps? Claire Barry suggests an examination of the areas with white gouache under ultraviolet light and analyze the samples this paint with XRF and polarizing light microscopy, which are tools that would help determine if the paint used in the gouache is titanium white. Why is that important? Titanium white was not invented and produced until the 20th century after Remington’s death. Despite the continued mystery of authorship, whoever the artist of this painting may be, what’s clear is that the work exhibits an underlying quality that one can enjoy regardless.
 A catalogue raisonné is a comprehensive, annotated listing of all known artworks by an artist in a particular medium.